The Red Sandals

A Memoir

Non-Fiction - Memoir
400 Pages
Reviewed on 07/02/2022
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Author Biography

The Red Sandals, my memoir, is about my surviving life in both China and America.

I was born inside my peasant grandparents’ one-room shack, infested with bed bugs and fleas in China’s deep mountains. My mother left when I was two months old. First eight years of my life, I was raised by my grandmother, who had once thrown her own newborn daughter into the urine pot to drown because she wanted a boy.

“A worthless female like a born stubborn dog!” Grandmother would yell at me. At age eight, I was sent faraway to be a servant to my parents and two younger brothers. My mother never smiled at me as child. My father told me I was too dumb to ever mount to anything in life.

From the 50’s to the 80’s in communist China, I survived famine, starvation, lack-of-water filth, family neglect and abuse, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and near-death trauma.

It was my love for books and school that sustained me. I became a top elite high school English teacher. At age 30, I competed my way to top of the world, America, for my master’s.

20 years of teaching in San Francisco’s chaotic inner-city public schools, however, depressed me severely. To find my lost sense of self-worth, I vowed to complete my memoir in my second language.

Writing was also my mother’s dream, a lost dream after her repeated attempts to abort me pushing a heavy pinewood washboard against her pregnant belly.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Sheena Monnin for Readers' Favorite

The Red Sandals by Jing Li is a moving memoir about a strong woman who overcomes tremendous odds to leave her home country, travels to America, and builds a life for herself, her husband, and her daughter. The story starts in China when the author is a very small child. She feels unwanted by her parents because she is not a son, and she lives with both verbal and emotional abuse daily. Her grandmother, her mother, and her mother’s friends each show her coldness and unkindness, leading the author to believe that is how she deserves to be treated, a theme that stays with her in her marriage. Eventually, despite incredible odds, she earns her teaching degree in China and fights for a path out of her home country and to America. Her motivation is to provide a wonderful life for her little daughter, and she sacrifices years of her life to be able to give her daughter the freedom, happiness, and opportunity that is in the United States.

Every chapter of The Red Sandals by Jing Li is both heartbreaking and inspiring as the reader follows the life of the author. The honesty within the memoir and the courage of the author to tell her story will endear her to the reader. I was so impressed by the excellent writing style and the flawless transitions between each phase of the author’s life. So many small moments are captured with great care and help the reader to know the author while opening the door to what it was like growing up in China from the 1950s through the 1980s. The story has a happy ending on many levels as the author achieves higher education, changes the lives of hundreds of students through her teaching skills, and successfully brings her daughter to the United States. This story shows how far humans can go with the will, determination, and focus to continue to try against the odds. The author is inspiring and brave!

Frances Deborah Kerr-Phillips

The Red Sandals: A Memoir by Jing Li is a powerful yet heart-wrenching and at times harrowing read. Li’s memoir commences with her recollections of her early childhood in Red Stone Bridge village in China’s Shanxi province, as a child unwanted by her mother and treated with harshness and cruelty by her grandmother, who was her caregiver at the time. Joining her parents and two younger brothers, Nimble and Cricket, in the dusty city of Taiyuan at the age of eight, Jing Li continued to face rejection, deprivation, hunger, ill health, and fear. Despite these adversities and the clamping down on education during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Jing Li’s resilient spirit fought on. Her incredible drive to get educated, become a teacher of English, and ultimately emigrate is truly inspirational.

Jing Li’s writing is blunt and direct, speaking of things as they were – the reader is not presented with any sugar-coating. The grim starkness of Li’s youth is counterbalanced by her ability to write with exquisite detail about things of great natural beauty in the village of her early years and its surrounds. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the various photographs of family, peers, and colleagues, and the accompanying analysis of them that Li often includes. I studied the photographs long and hard, seeking insight into the actual people being written about. Writing this memoir must have been a cathartic and painful experience for the author. Reading The Red Sandals was a privilege. Ultimately, I was left uplifted by Li’s indomitable human spirit.

Lexie Fox

The Red Sandals is a non-fiction memoir by Jing Li, her debut published book, and is suitable for all ages. Following the author’s early life in Northern China, her very existence as a daughter rather than a son earned her the displeasure of her family. The depiction of the author’s early youth was particularly heart-breaking as the natural instinct to be childish and joyful was met with abuse and resentment from her grandmother; both are beautifully depicted with prose that uses the sweetness of one to highlight the bitterness of the other but never goes so far into doom that the underlying optimism of the story is undermined.

As the author’s childhood becomes a rollercoaster of ups and downs with a supportive teacher who encourages her to learn, only for them to be taken away when the author is sent to live as a servant to her parents and brothers where the oppression of her developing soul only grows greater. As school becomes the opportunity for salvation, the cultural revolution threatens to take it away again. Jing Li’s uphill battle to become a successful teacher at one of the country's top schools is an incredible journey to behold, and Li’s gift for language depicts the harrowing nature of every cruel word thrown at her with devastating emotional effect. But just as it depicts the darkness of her life, The Red Sandals never falls short of being a story of hope. It is a beautiful tale of one woman struggling against a world, that initially felt like it didn’t want her in it, to find success and happiness in her life.

Kim Anisi

In the fascinating memoir The Red Sandals: A Memoir by Jing Li, readers travel back in time and immerse themselves in a girl's life in China before, during, and after Mao's cultural revolution. It became obvious from the beginning that Jing Li's life would not be easy. Her mother tried to make sure that she was not even born! After all, girls were not desirable, and almost every woman wanted a boy. The first few years of her life were spent with her grandparents because her parents were living in a city, not wanting to look after their daughter. Jing Li was carefree but suffered constant abuse from her grandmother. At the age of 8, the girl moved from the poor village to the city to live with her parents, but life did not become much better because she had to take care of her two younger brothers. In addition, she had to spend time in a hospital because of her failing health. She was told she'd only live until 25. Through her troubled childhood and teenage years, school was always her escape. She discovered her talent for languages and used it wisely - to the dismay of many others. Readers will follow her life, how she meets her future husband, learns that she can only rely on herself, and how she fights against the odds to make her dreams come true, even though the world crushes those dreams again and again.

I picked up The Red Sandals: A Memoir by Jing Li because I am interested in life in Asian countries, but I also felt that the author's story was similar to my own. Even though I did not grow up in poverty, I did share the experience of having a mother who would rather not have had me, as well as a problematic family. I also discovered my love and talent for languages when I was young, working hard to make my dreams come true. It was nice to read about someone else going through similar phases and problems and having similar success. It was also very interesting to read about what a childhood in a poorer region of China looks like. There is a lot of cultural and historical information in the memoir, particularly about Mao and how he influenced life in China. The author openly shares what she experienced and the way China shaped her experiences. Writing has been a dream of hers, but she had doubts about her abilities because English is not her home language. While her English is not perfect in some parts of the book, this adds to the authenticity and is charming. It is an honest story, not difficult to read, but with difficult topics. I enjoyed the journey, even though a lot of it is sad. Her experience is encouraging me to continue working on my own story that will let people know they are not alone, and also educate them about other countries and other lifestyles.

Foluso Falaye

"Dad, why was I looking so unhappy in the photo?" This was Jing Li's question to her father in 2007 about when she was little. The answer she got revealed that she was not as special as the boy child in their family. By 2007, it had been two decades since Jing, a Chinese emigrant, had been living and teaching in the United States. The Red Sandals is Jing Li's story about growing up with a family that constantly abused her, both physically and verbally, and a culture that was shaped in a way that she could never do enough to earn the respect and love that every human deserves, no matter their gender or political view. Fortunately, Jing made it to the United States and achieved several accomplishments as a writer and teacher.

I did not know to appreciate some of the rights and privileges I enjoy until reading The Red Sandals. Imagine finishing high school and not being able to go to college because your government prefers you to be "re-educated". I was completely shocked by the difficulties Jing Li endured and couldn't stop reading the greatly informative and vivid narrative about her challenges, both in China and the US. Little Jing is easy to like, as she was quite spirited and strong-willed, despite the problems she faced—including famine, sexism, abuse, an inhumane government, unhygienic living conditions, and more. Jing's story is a great example of how resilient and strong the human spirit is. Readers who are currently facing some significant challenges will be inspired to keep working toward a better reality by this incredibly powerful and deeply moving story. The Red Sandals is definitely in the top three memoirs I have read this year.

Astrid Iustulin

A woman's life is always extraordinary, but personal experiences are even more remarkable if they are like those of Jing Li. In The Red Sandals, Li tells the story of her life from China, where she was born, to America. Li is an unwanted daughter (her mother had unsuccessfully tried to abort her) and lived with her grandparents before moving in with her parents. Her mother and father, however, prefer her two brothers over her, and the young girl has a strained relationship with them. When she grows up, Li becomes an English teacher, gets married, gives birth to a daughter, and moves to America to ensure a better future for her family - but she will have to pay the price for her choice.

The Red Sandals is an autobiography written by an author who does not want to hide anything, even though her life has often been difficult. What I liked most about Li's book is that it offers the reader the rare opportunity to follow a person's life in two worlds as different as China and America. Also, it gives us a clear picture of what it means to have grown up in China in the second half of the 20th century. The people surrounding Li are very well detailed and remain etched in the reader's memory. In particular, the tough characters of Li's mother and grandmother stand out with clarity. I recommend The Red Sandals to readers who love autobiographies and see them as a means of learning experiences they could never have.

K.C. Finn

The Red Sandals: A Memoir is a work of non-fiction in the memoir subgenre. It is suitable for the general reading audience and was penned by author Jing Li. The book chronicles the life of the author as she endures verbal and emotional abuse from her family after being born female in a deeply male-oriented society. Throughout her life, she encounters brief moments of hope and inspiration through figures such as teachers and doctors. As her fight to survive and find a place in the world where she could thrive faced hurdles as daunting as the Cultural Revolution, writing becomes the tool for her salvation.

It’s easy to look at the hurdles faced by women in western cultures and the battle we face for equality and forget that there are parts of the world where simply being a girl was enough to provoke outrage and disgust from your own family. Author Jing Li’s deeply personal writing about her life serves as a reminder that the battle for global equality is a long way from being won, with her emotive depiction of the physical toll the abuse she endured took on her being a rallying cry for action to ensure the next generation doesn’t have to suffer this. I cannot commend the author highly enough for the deep level of vulnerability she was willing to show in The Red Sandals which elevates it high above others in its genre. Overall, this is an emotional journey that depicts the brutal reality of a society that values a particular type of person at the expense of those who don’t conform and I recommend it highly to all readers.

Rabia Tanveer

The Red Sandals: A Memoir by Jing Li tells the story of the author’s life as she reveals her painful past and how she survived. She was two months old when her mother and Jing started to live with her abusive grandmother. The only respite in her life was school, but even that wasn’t enough when she was sent to live with her parents. Jing was nothing less than a servant and felt inadequate in the presence of her younger brothers. When school proved to be her refuge once again, Jing’s deteriorating health led doctors to announce she wasn’t going to live past twenty. In between all that, young Jing had to survive the Cultural Revolution and fight for her dream to become a teacher. The Red Sandals reflects on her past, her struggles, and her determination to get her life back.

English isn’t the author’s first language but Jing Li does a remarkable job of conveying her emotions and struggles so eloquently. However, considering that she spent the better part of her life learning and teaching English in San Francisco reflects on her triumphs and nothing less. Jing Li divides her story into four parts, and each of the parts reflected on a certain time in her life. You might think the fourth part of her story when she was in America would be her saving grace, but Jing had the hardest time finding her footing in a brand-new place. While her abusive past was enough to bring even the strongest of people to their knees, Jing only got stronger with each abusive word or hand. Jing simply states her life, making the reader want to listen to what she has to say and become immersed in her story. Inspirational and heartfelt, this is an empowering memoir everyone should read.